Tuesday 21 May 2019

High Life

Semen Meringue

High Life
2018 UK/France/Germany/Poland/USA
Directed by Claire Denis
UK cinema release print.

If I’d had seen High Life when I was ten to twelve years old, it would have been an absolutely classic movie to me.

However, I’m not ten and... it’s not.

I’ll explain that comment by the time I get to the end of this little review, I’m sure but, I think in all honesty I’d have to call this as being a fairly interesting failure of a film. I’ve wanted to watch a film directed by Claire Denis for quite some time now and... I just wish it hadn’t been this one.

Certainly part... but only a small part... of the problem, for me, is lead actor Robert Pattinson. I just can’t get the hang of him and while he, kind of, holds his own in this one... it really is centred around his character and, apart from a toddler, it’s only him on his own for the first twenty minutes or so. Then, once he starts flashing backwards (and other ways) to moments in the story, what there is of it, we get to meet some of the other characters. Two of them are played by actresses I really like too... the always brilliant Juliette Binoche and the, relatively, new to the scene but already very interesting actress Mia Goth. However, Pattinson is kinda okay in this but, even with some great co-stars for some of the scenes, the wonderfully sombre and memory driven tone of the movie is kinda wrecked by a lack of follow through on the part of the story, I felt.

Also, it does feel like a bizarrely, over eclectic, post modern pop video in terms of it seeming like an empty knock off of other great films which the director maybe admired along the way.

Okay, so the story set up is quite good. Death row convicts are given the opportunity to instead go into space to try and create life in the wombs of the females and get that life to survive... via sperm donations from the male crew. Bearing in mind the preciousness of their fluid since the ship’s doctor, played by Binoche, is not having very good results at keeping the fetuses and sometimes their mothers alive, one wonders why the crew also have a recreational “fuck box” which is, pretty much, this film’s version of the ‘orgasmatron’ in Woody Allen’s Sleeper. Or maybe it was just another way of harvesting fluid... I’m not sure. And, of course, it’s a ship full of convicts... including the authority figure played by Binoche... so what could possibly go wrong then?

The film is slowly paced, which is fine... I prefer that to the fast paced, cause and effect headlong rush of a lot of American movies but... I dunno, it feels like there’s a lot of work going on for so little reward. There’s a nice point, to be fair, where the identity of one of the characters is revealed and you realise the structure of the film was a little more convoluted than perhaps one first realised. There’s also an extraordinarily nice visual moment, also included in the trailer and as the title card goes up, of corpses floating in space but perhaps this sequence and the general structure of the film is one of the reasons I was less engaged than I should be with the movie. Since you already know the majority of the crew die, seeing their back story, including Mia Goth’s bizarrely crazy character, didn’t let me invest any time or let me empathise with the cast. Not that I was going to root for a bunch of characters who are at the extreme criminal end of the spectrum anyway. So maybe that’s why I just wasn’t that into it.

Also, this is a film that really wears its influences on its sleeve and becomes almost like a humourless echo of Carpenter’s Dark Star mixed with Silent Running and re-filtered through Tarkovsky’s humbling adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. It seems obvious that the creative team here are more than just a little fond of these movies and, certainly, the way Pattinson keeps remembering flashes of his childhood as his crimes become revealed seem like they were lifted straight from the cinema of Tarkovsky. Alas, it also feels like a cheap facsimile and even the corridor sets seem a bit more do-it-yourself and less ‘space worthy’ than you might want. At least, that’s the way it seemed to me. And this is why I suspect very young audiences will respond to this film a lot more enthusiastically than people out of their early teens... because they probably haven’t got around to watching the key inspirational source movies to know that this is almost a second hand experience as portrayed in this film.

The one saving grace is maybe the music, which I really liked and which is, thankfully, available from Milan as a CD. Although, to be honest, I really didn’t need to hear Pattinson singing on the end credits song. The score seems pretty good and appropriate to the pacing of the film though and I will definitely be picking this one up at some point.

Other than that, though... not really impressed with High Life, to be honest, although, as I said, I reckon the kids will love it. Worth going for the music and some of the key performances but not something I could get attached to at either an emotional or technical level, it has to be said. What is on the screen is good and, mostly, competently executed but... it feels less rewarding than the films it seems artistically descended from. I still want to see some of this director’s other work though which, judging from the word of mouth on this one, are possibly more original than High Life.

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